As Yeltsin Totters, Chernomyrdin Is Standing Tall

Russian television viewers recently witnessed an extraordinary spectacle. First, an apparently tipsy Boris Yeltsin flashed on their screens from the Group of Seven confab in Halifax. Gesturing wildly, Yeltsin sputtered inaccurate statements on the Chechen situation and admitted ordering the botched attacks that killed at least 30 Russian hostages in the city of Budyonnovsk. The next day, the TV networks showed a grim-faced Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, 57, negotiating the release of the remaining hostages. "It was Chernomyrdin who became the real head of state," says Andrei Piontkowsky, head of the Moscow Center for Strategic Studies. "Yeltsin abstained from that responsibility."

In the political aftershock of the crisis, one message is clear: Boris Yeltsin's era is drawing to an end. The man who bravely crushed communism four years ago and dragged Russia into a market economy is tired and spent. His political clock is winding down--though he does not seem to realize it. The State Duma underlined the point on June 21 when it passed a no-confidence vote in his government--the first ever.

FADED STARS. For the time being, Chernomyrdin is Yeltsin's only logical successor. His stature is likely to grow as a deeply divided Kremlin faces coming legislative and presidential elections. Chernomyrdin's cool handling of the hostage crisis has given him a big boost over the Kremlin faction known as the "Party of War." These military and intelligence chiefs pushed Yeltsin into the disastrous raid and the bloody Chechen invasion and now look foolish.

Another factor in Chernomyrdin's favor has been the self-destruction of other reformers. The young stars of a couple of years ago, including former economic czar Yegor T. Gaidar, former Finance Minister Boris G. Fedorov, and liberal economist Grigory A. Yavlinsky, were trounced by Vladimir Zhirinovsky's ultranationalists in 1993. But they don't seem to have learned from that defeat. Their egos are still too big for them to be able to work together.

That leaves it up to Chernomyrdin, former head of the state gas monopoly Gazprom, to take on the extremists and the former communists, who are effective campaigners. Chernomyrdin and his centrist backers have formed a new party called "Our Home is Russia." Backed by Russia's powerful energy lobby and the new banks, such as Imperial Bank, that serve it, the party represents a monied crowd that has benefited enormously from privatization.

Zhirinovsky sarcastically dubs the party "Our Home is Gazprom." But it has the financial backing and savvy to be a strong factor in the December parliamentary races and the June, 1996, presidential contest--especially if Chernomyrdin decides to run.

A Chernomyrdin-led government would probably be the most favorable for foreign business. He favors integrating Russia's economy with world markets and wants foreign investment for energy projects and other deals. By contrast, the young reformers are too disorganized to deliver, and Zhirinovsky, the ex-communists, and the hardline defense chiefs all want to reinstate big chunks of the Soviet system.

While Chernomyrdin seems to hold the best cards, the result of the coming power struggle is far from certain. The military and police heavies remain dangerous, and Yeltsin still has enough power to do damage. Jealous of Chernomyrdin, he might even seize on the no-confidence vote as a pretext to dump the Prime Minister. But, as Izvestia political analyst Stanislav Kondrashov notes, Yeltsin probably realizes he would lose more than he would gain from such a move. And it might open the way for someone much worse.

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